ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistan announced plans to lift its state of emergency within one month and allowed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to leave her villa following a day under house arrest, as the country sought Saturday to restore its battered image at home and abroad.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf insists he called the week-old emergency to help fight Islamic extremists who control large swathes of territory near the Afghan border, but the main targets of his crackdown have been his most outspoken critics, including the increasingly independent courts and media.
Thousands of people have been arrested, TV news stations taken off air, and judges removed. Three reporters from Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper were ordered to leave Pakistan because of an editorial in the paper that used an expletive in an allusion to Musharraf, a government spokesman said Saturday.
The editorial also said Musharraf governed with a "combination of incompetence and brutality" and has become "part of the problem" in the battle against Islamic militants.
The government under mounting pressure from the U.S. and other Western allies to restore democracy in the nation of 160 million people has announced that parliamentary elections initially slated for January would be held no later than Feb. 15.
And Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told The Associated Press on Saturday that the state of emergency would "end within one month." He provided no further details and would not say when a formal announcement might come.
Security forces threw a cordon around Bhutto's villa in an upscale neighborhood of the capital Friday, and rounded up thousands of her supporters to prevent a planned demonstration against the crackdown. But she was allowed to leave her home 24 hours later, meeting first with party colleagues and then addressing a small journalists' protest.
But dozens of helmeted police blocked her white, bulletproof Land Cruiser when she tried to visit Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the independent-minded chief justice who was removed from his post following Musharraf's state of emergency.
Speaking through a loudspeaker, Bhutto said Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants were gaining ground in the country's turbulent northwest. She also said Musharraf's military-led government was about to crumble.
"This government is standing on its last foot," she said, as dozens of supporters scuffled briefly with police. "This government is going to go."
Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that Pakistan's political crisis would actually distract from efforts to quash a growing militant threat the country also has been hit by a series of deadly suicide bombings, including one Oct. 18 targeting Bhutto.
NATO said Saturday insurgents had killed six American troops in eastern Afghanistan.
But the Bush administration continues to describe Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally against extremists, suggesting it is unlikely to yield to calls from some lawmakers in Washington for cuts in its generous aid to Pakistan, much of it to the powerful military.
Just a few weeks ago, Bhutto and Musharraf were discussing the possibility of forming a pro-West alliance against militants, and her return last month following eight years in exile came after he agreed to drop corruption charges against her.
Bhutto has left open the possibility of re-entering talks with the army chief, including on her wish to serve a third term as prime minister, but such prospects have been dimmed by recent restrictions on her movement and her increasingly tough talk.
"You have allowed (firebrand Islamic cleric) Maulana Fazlullah to snatch Swat, (a former tourist destination where fighting has raged for months), but you are beating unarmed people," Bhutto said, drawing chants of "Long live Bhutto!" from her supporters.
Suspected militants have abducted scores of soldiers in the region in recent weeks, including eight on Saturday, who were stopped at a makeshift roadblock and overpowered, government and military officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Bhutto's aides said she would meet Saturday night with foreign diplomats to discuss the political crisis.
Hundreds of police blocked the street in front of Bhutto's home Friday to keep her from leading a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi that had been expected to draw thousands. She said Saturday she was still determined to go ahead with a 185-mile march Tuesday from the city of Lahore to Islamabad.
"To get Pakistan from the clutches of dictatorship, we are organizing a long march," Bhutto said. "I request ... all segments of the population to join us in the struggle for democracy. When the masses combine, the sound of their steps will suppress the sound of military boots."
Many critics say the main goal of Musharraf's emergency was to pre-empt a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of his victory in a presidential election last month. Under the constitution, public servants cannot run for office.
Qayyum, the attorney general, said the court now purged of its more independent-minded justices would swear in more judges in the next two or three days, bringing it up to the strength required to restart hearings in the case.Musharraf says he will quit his post as army chief and rule as a civilian once the court has confirmed his re-election, but set no date for that step.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.